Shhh…Performance Not In Progress

There is a silence brewing in American theater. It’s not a Pinteresque pause or the dead stillness that happens when an actor forgets his lines. It’s the systematic silencing of women’s voices.

Women have been writing plays for eleven centuries. Without works by women the theater canon would be absurdly incomplete.  Yet since 1997 Guerrilla Girls On Tour has kept statistics on how many plays by women are produced nationwide and for the past 16 years we have never come across any season that contained more than 20% plays by women, (and that’s being very generous). The last Broadway season experienced a significant number of productions of new plays by women – four. Yet not one of them earned an Antoinette Perry (Tony) nomination for best play. (This season has 2 plays by women on Broadway)  And for the past 11 years we’ve kept “Girlcott” list – a list of theaters across the U.S. that fail to include a single play by a woman in their main stage seasons. This year the list includes 59 theatres.

Even as groups like 50/50 in 2020 and the Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative form to fight the sexist trend in theater it isn’t getting better for women playwrights (and directors, designers, producers, etc).  The question remains, are women playwrights falling to the same fate as bluefin tuna – both almost extinct?

I hope not. The theater needs women playwrights. Emily Glassberg Sand’s recent study, Opening the Curtain on Playwright Gender: An Integrated Economic Analysis of Discrimination in American Theater, showed that productions of plays by women earned, on average, more money than productions of plays by men. But even if that were not the case I’m wondering if we really want to live in a world where we can only buy tickets to productions of plays written by white males.

Last fall I organized an event to protest discrimination in theater — a speak-out entitled We Are Theatre.  I contacted 20 female playwrights and asked them to contribute a very short play or monologue about sexism in theatre.  No one responded. I contacted the playwrights again. Nothing. Where were they? Were they busy? Were they afraid? Were they gone?

Finally, I got a response – a woman of color who had experienced some success (plays produced and published) early in her career wrote to me saying, “…it disturbs me that I have had such a tentative place at the theater table. I have since turned to novels and other artistic expressions.”

Horrors! I was too late! Women playwrights had moved on without anyone noticing. They were writing novels, poems and essays instead of plays. They were focusing their creativity elsewhere.  There were no more women playwrights!

In my heart I knew this was wrong.  I tried a third time, sent out more calls for plays and reached out to groups like the Women’s Initiative members of the Dramatists Guild to help me find women playwrights.  And soon my inbox slowly began to be filled with beautiful monologues, scenes and short plays by women. The women playwrights had put my call to write plays for We Are Theatre on their “to do” list and for whatever reason (time, energy, rage) had postponed sitting down to their desks to write about being in the less than 20% category.

But those weeks of silence still haunt me. Has our constant dismissal of works by women playwrights eaten away at their drive to write for the stage? When they sit down at their desks will they make writing plays less and less of a priority until they don’t write them at all?

The theater won’t die, (right away at least), without women playwrights. But I think it’s time to start making a big deal about the lack of plays by women on American stages.  The continually rejection, dismissal, censorship and deferment of plays by women is an extraordinary risk we are taking and it might drive women playwrights from the stage forever.

We need to raise our collective voices and speak out for change.  Like the Walmart retail workers who are now beginning to win improvements in their lives and jobs because they shamed their employers into doing the right thing, we should all take a few minutes every day to write, email, call and text artistic directors with the message that we won’t buy another ticket until they schedule seasons of at least 50% plays by women.  If we do not start doing this we risk never hearing the works of thousands of women playwrights.  And if that day comes I am sure the silence will be deafening.

-Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn is the Artistic Director of Guerrilla Girls On Tour! – an activist/feminist touring theater company.  In September of 2012 she spearheaded “We Are Theater”, a speak-out against sexism in theater featuring 30 plays by women at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City.  Stay tuned for We Are Theatre 2013